Is extinction really such a bad thing?

From New Scientist, the brief article in full:

A thoughtful exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum explores the benefits of extinction, and the possibility of humanity eradicating itself

It’s not something that you would expect London’s Natural History Museum to extol, but its new exhibition says extinction may not be so bad after all.

“Extinction, like death, is a natural part of life,” declares a sage epigraph at the start of this thoughtful exhibition. “Extinction isn’t necessarily the end of the world, it could be just the beginning…”

The exhibition aims to make visitors question their ideas on extinction. Is it any worse when caused by humans than by meteorites or volcanic eruptions? Should conservation be our watchword, or should some organisms go extinct?

The five mass extinctions in Earth’s history wiped out swathes of life, but out of the devastation new species rose – shaped and honed by evolution – to inherit the Earth. More than 99 per cent of species that ever lived are now dead, and the exhibition hammers home the point that extinction drives evolution, which results in life in all its wondrous forms.

But it tempers this message strongly with a second sobering one: human actions are causing extinctions in a way never before seen. “If we don’t do anything about it, make no mistake – it will hugely affect the world we live in,” says Adrian Lister, a palaeontologist at the museum whose work on the extinct Irish elk forms part of the exhibition. “It would take the biosphere millions of years to recover.”

It’s not all doom, though. There are upbeat stories on display – animals we drove to the brink but then saved through conservation efforts: the Californian condor, the Arabian oryx, and China’s Pere David’s deer.

Saving other species is laudable, but can we save ourselves? In a thought-provoking section, the museum presents the concept of Homo extinctus - humans wiped out forever. “There’s nothing inevitable about our survival,” says Chris Stringer, the museum’s head of human origins. “The biggest threat to us is us.”

Survival is tough, and in a masterful stroke, the exhibition drives this home with a retro video game. In the species extinction game, the player must manoeuvre a Pac-Man-like creature around a world beset with creeping ice ages, fiery volcanoes and relentless winds, all the while competing with other animated species to snaffle sparse food supplies. A genius touch is the availability of “adaptation” tokens, which allow your creature to evolve traits to help it survive longer in its hostile world.

In reality, this game may be even harder. H. sapiens is the sole survivor of its family. We are young at 400,000 years, notes Stringer; our close relative, H. erectus, survived for 2 million. As he says: “We’ve a long way to go.”

 

Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 James Ament

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